Thursday, 20 June 2019

Questions (8, 26)

Brendan Smith

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the outcome of the most recent discussions his officials have had with their counterparts in Northern Ireland in respect of funding for cross-Border projects post 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25796/19]

View answer

Brendan Smith

Question:

26. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the outcome of the most recent discussions he has had with his British counterpart in respect of the funding of cross-Border projects post 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25795/19]

View answer

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Public)

As the Minister is aware, successive PEACE and INTERREG programmes have been very important for regional development Border counties, North and South. Community groups and statutory agencies have been able to bring projects that would not otherwise have been funded by the State to completion. I am very anxious, as are communities on both sides of the Border, to hear a clear message from the Government that successor programmes will continue after 2020. It is an important message that needs to be sent out to communities both North and South.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 26 together.

As the Deputy is aware, Ireland and the UK are partners in two EU-funded cross-border co-operation Programmes, PEACE and INTERREG, which have a combined value of more €550 million over the period from 2014 to 2020. These programmes support social and economic cohesion and peace and reconciliation in the Border region of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The two programmes are important drivers of regional development in a cross-border context. Through EU-funded co-operation a range of organisations, North and South, have engaged in and benefited from a variety of cross-border and cross-community projects.

 Support for the two programmes from the European Regional Development Fund is a key element of the European Union's continuing commitment to the process of peace-building and reconciliation in the region over the last quarter of a century.

The Government has been clear and consistent about its commitment to the successful implementation of the current PEACE and INTERREG programmes and to a successor programme post 2020. My officials and I have worked to ensure that this important source of funding for the Border region continues after Brexit.

In this regard, in December 2017 both the EU and UK undertook to honour their commitments to the current PEACE and INTERREG programmes and to favourably examine the possibilities for future programmes.

In May 2018, as part of its post-2020 multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and cohesion policy proposals, the European Commission proposed a special new PEACE PLUS programme that will build on and continue the work of both PEACE and INTERREG. I welcome this proposal. It will be moved forward as part of the draft cohesion policy regulations and the MFF negotiations.

I thank the Minister for his response and I welcome the fact that the European Commission is committed to a post-2020 programme. My questions asked the Minister if there is ongoing contact with the authorities in Northern Ireland and with his counterpart in Britain on the commitment of the British Government and the authorities in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the Minster does not have a counterpart to speak to in Northern Ireland because of the antics of Sinn Féin and the DUP. Unfortunately there is not an assembly or Executive working on behalf of the people there.

Has the Minister or his officials had ongoing contact with the British Government on its commitment to programmes post 2020? Since the mid-1990s, the programmes have been 85% funded by the European Commission and they have been an important funding stream for community and infrastructure development on both sides of the Border. What is the commitment from the British at this time to a successor programme?

I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the work and progress that have already taken place. As he is aware, in essence we have an agreement to allow what is in place to continue up to 2023. We have had extensive engagement with the Commission on these projects. I had engagement with my counterpart in the British Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Philip Hammond, during the period in which decisions were being made on the continuation of these programmes up to that point. It is important that I am open with the Deputy. This matter will have to be picked up again as we move into serious negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework in the first half of next year in particular. There is also the context of having to deal with a new British Prime Minister. My intentions are clear and I know these projects work and are valuable. I want to find a way of ensuring we can continue to make progress with them.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to the programmes. In the post-Brexit era, such programmes will never have been more needed. There could be fragile relations between North and South, although I hope that will not be the case. Those of us privileged to be public representatives of Border communities worked with counterparts in Northern Ireland in the dark days to bring projects together. I am thankful there was great momentum behind the PEACE and INTERREG programmes. There are many pieces of infrastructure throughout the province of Ulster that were funded as a direct result of those programmes being in place. They are bringing benefits to communities and individuals today and unfortunately they will be needed again in the post-Brexit era because of the adverse impact Brexit will have on all our island.

I ask the Minister to ensure the value of these programmes is to the fore in the many discussions that will be necessary at European Union level and with his British counterpart. The Minister is aware that to draw down funding under any of these programmes, a great deal of preparation must be done, which is quite understandable. If community groups and statutory agencies are to plan or prepare applications, they need to have a good idea that such programmes will exist. I sincerely hope they will given their importance.

The political analysis offered by the Deputy is fair. We all hope to avoid the worst of Brexit and we are all working to do that. The Deputy and his party have been very clear in their support in trying to ensure we can do that. However, we will move to a very challenging period in the next number of months and the value of these programmes will become even greater if the uncertainty grows.

The greatest contribution that could be made to our efforts in this area would be the restoration of the Good Friday Agreement institutions and the Stormont Assembly so that public representatives in Northern Ireland could actively campaign for these programmes and acknowledge their value. It is extremely important that this should happen as we move into planning a post-Brexit relationship and how that will affect these programmes. I assure the Deputy that I have seen the results of these programmes and I know how valuable they are. I will be working as hard as I can to ensure a good future for these kinds of programmes, which have made a difference for Border communities.

I am very anxious to accommodate the four Deputies in the House who want to have their questions answered before noon. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien is always very quick in putting his question so I suggest to all Deputies that they put their question in 15 seconds or less in order to accommodate everybody. Question No. 10 is next and is grouped with Questions Nos. 15 and 16. I ask Deputy O'Brien to put his question as quickly as possible.

The subject matter of Question No. 10 has been flogged to death already so I am happy to allow other Members to contribute.

Questions Nos. 15 and 16 are also in this group.

I could deal with the other questions in the group but we have missed a question.

Question No. 9 was overlooked.

I apologise. Does Deputy Cowen wish to ask it now?

Yes. I take every chance I get because the Minister only takes questions every six weeks.